Everything that could have gone wrong did on Interstate 4, the main artery connecting east to west Florida through the heart of Disney World early Wednesday morning.
A dramatic drop in humidity created a white haze of fog that blanketed this speeding expressway like snow from an avalanche while at the same time a controlled burn whipped into a smoky wildfire that, when combined with the fog, turned visibility to zero.
38 people were injured and four lost their lives in a twisted 70 car pileup, among the worst highway disasters in Florida history.
The Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) has begun its investigation into what happened and what the state might have done differently. The state Department of Agriculture has two investigations into the controlled burn and the role it played.
The outcome of the investigation could lead to millions in lawsuits as the departments battle over responsibility. The FHP says it acted responsibly even though a trooper gave the all clear about 3:15 Wednesday morning. At 4:30 the first accident occurred.
The first lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the Gomez family by Orlando attorney, Bill McBride. There were five Gomez family members in one car. Tonight three are hospitalized, one on life support, two in serious condition.
Other lawsuits are pending. McBride tells WESH tv in Orlando, “We want to see whoever breached the duty, whoever committed negligence at that point to make sure that the family gets compensated.” The Gomez family says they didn’t see any warning of the fires or road conditions.
The suit targets the Division of Forestry, which oversees the controlled burns and the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) as well as drivers of the cars that rear-ended the Gomez vehicle.
The burn permits filed by the Department of Agriculture/Division of Forestry will figure prominently in the investigations.
“A couple of statutes regulate what you are supposed to do in a controlled burn,” Ocala attorney Craig Cannon tells IB News.
Cannon is currently representing a driver seriously hurt in January 2005, when his vehicle plowed into the rear of a tractor-trailer during the pre-dawn hours on U.S. 19 on the west coast of Florida. Just like I-4, there was zero visibility from a controlled or “prescribed burn” and in the pitch dark the driver saw nothing until he hit the windshield.
Investigators will have to determine if the burn permit was filed properly. “You are supposed to notify the Sheriff and the Florida Highway Patrol when you get a burn permit,” Cannon says. “I’d like to know if the state did those things. If not, it might have gotten out of control.”
In Florida, under a waived sovereign immunity that protects the state from lawsuits, an injured driver may recover up to $100,000 for an individual or $200,000 for the dependants. Additional recovery must be sought through a special law known as a Claims Bill.
Five state investigators from the Department of Agriculture will look into whether proper procedures were followed in conducting the controlled burns along I-4. The burns are regularly set to clear away fallen timbers that make ideal fuel for lightning strikes.
Even though the state is in a drought, controlled or “prescribed burning” was successfully set on 30 acres north of I-4 in October and on 50 acres in November with no problems. When humidity drops below 30 percent the Division of Forestry generally denies the permit.
On Tuesday the paperwork says the humidity measured 63 percent. Then the humidity dropped to 30 percent and that’s when things got out of control.
Reports are that by Tuesday, state employees called in reinforcements to help battle what was then a 400-acre blaze. That evening DOT workers reportedly put out bright orange signs that said “Fog Smoke.”
Controlled burns have been stopped by the state for now.
All lanes of I-4 were opened Friday morning and the dense fog had not returned. FHP is closely monitoring conditions.
Darren Scott Snyder was always upbeat, his family says. He was newly married, living with his in-laws and working at Disney where he had just completed an apprentice program to become an air conditioning specialist there. He and his new wife were hoping to buy a home.
Then at 5 a.m. Wednesday, Snyder got into his red Mustang and headed to work from his Auburndale home.
“I love you Mama. Have a good day” were the last words to his mother-in-law.
A Sheriff’s Deputy watched Snyder burn to death amid the tangle of cars and tractor- trailers piled along Interstate 4. There was nothing he could do.
And now adding insult to injury, some accident witnesses, still shaky from the carnage are finding themselves ticketed, like Wilfredo Reveron.
The Orlando electrician was driving west along I-4 on his way to Tampa when his became one of 70 vehicles in the wreck.
Reveron got out and did what he could helping translate conversations between motorists and Florida Highway Patrol troopers. That is until one said to him, “Here is your ticket."
Reveron was ticketed for careless driving as were many motorists traveling westbound watching those in the eastbound direction involved in the initial fatal crashes.
A trooper says the westbound lanes became a tangle of emergency vehicles, motorists trying to veer out of the way to keep moving and careless drivers causing more accidents.
Reveron faces a $121 fine, four points on his driver’s license and a possible increase in auto insurance premiums. The electrician says he will contest the fine in court. #